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by Eric Kohn
August 10, 2011 2:11 AM
18 Comments
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Critic's Notebook | How Movies Like "The Help" Reinforce Hollywood's Race Problem

Emma Stone and Viola Davis in "The Help." Image courtesy of DreamWorks/Disney.

Nobody should be surprised by the dearth of minorities in contemporary media. On the surface, it's a boring issue: Whether or not the stories of gay, black or women characters make their way into movies and television only becomes a central issue if specific industrial forces continue to keep them out. If a truly progressive society is color blind, then everyone should let the chips fall and assume equal opportunity remains in flux. The reality is a lot more complicated, as demonstrated this week by the release of the antiquated civil rights drama "The Help."

Based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 best-seller, Tate Taylor's nearly two-and-a-half hour period piece follows young college graduate Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer in the early 1960's driven to dictate the marginalized experiences of the black maids in her community. These include Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a wise middle-aged woman whose son's death leads her to take a maternal approach with the children she's hired to raise, and the loudmouthed Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), whose colorful personality often causes her white employers to show her the door.

Eugenia's decision to begin collecting the maids' testimonies stems from her frustrations after her mother (Allison Janney) abruptly fires the woman who had raised Eugenia from infancy. It would have been a noble project in its time, which "The Help" inhabits with no less period specificity than an episode of "Mad Men." Eugenia's attempt to gain the trust of her subjects while tolerating the overtly racist stances of her neighbors--led by the eerie Stepford wife Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard)--give the movie an engaging arc with a predictably satisfying emotional payoff. But the very existence of this movie, prominently distributed by Disney and marketed as an important, heartfelt experience, symbolizes a rather backward state of affairs.

By positioning the struggles of African Americans during a period of great social upheaval as subservient to a charming white savior, "The Help" suffers from being markedly dated. That's not meant as a knock to the talented Emma Stone, whose understandably likable screen presence makes the role at least tolerable. However, the book's virtual overnight transition to the big screen (the movie rights were purchased shortly after its release) reflects the industry's continuing inability to construct African American stories without a vanilla filter. It's a cousin to the way "Schindler's List" tells the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of a non-Jew to widen its accessibility.

In the 1970's, the black community essentially gave up on Hollywood and turned to the blaxploitation genre for inspiration. Although no longer around in exploitation form, that separate industry continues to this day, particularly through the isolated appeal of Tyler Perry. Meanwhile, breakout talents like "Medicine for Melancholy" director Barry Jenkins find themselves prematurely hoisted onto a pedestal, forced to prove that new black stories can work well without necessarily referencing the great strides of the civil rights movement. (After "Melancholy" became an indie sleeper hit, Jenkins was courted for a much bigger project by…Disney.)

Ironically, the best sequence in "The Help" does involve a historical event: The 1963 assassination of Medger Evers, whose untimely death at the hands of a white supremacist leads the terrified Aibileen to go scrambling for cover. Suddenly, "The Help" shifts focus from Eugenia's feel-good interview project to a much quiet, suspenseful evocation of an oppressed existence.

But then, just as quickly as it changes gears, "The Help" returns to its cheery pose, playfully engaging with its era in air quotes. "You better write this fast," Eugenia's editor tells her, "before this whole civil rights thing blows over." That gag line is aimed squarely at the audience. As a wink, it's a relatively tame throwaway bit. But it inadvertently emphasizes the movie's generally carefree attitude. That's not a problem for many audiences, who will find that "The Help" plays well enough in basic crowdpleaser terms, but it does help reinforce the idea that movies like this have lost their relevance.

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18 Comments

  • Monica | August 20, 2011 6:28 AMReply

    Dated? It was about a previous time period you idiot....

    It was showing how it was back then plain and simple. It wasn't right, but does that mean it should be ignored?

    I like that fact that it was funny, because it will be something that people will want to watch over and over, and I can see it being a classic. Which is a good thing, because it has an important underlying message which is what the white people thought back then was just wrong on so many levels.

  • Rick265 | August 15, 2011 3:34 AMReply

    The reviewer makes a good point. Mainstream Hollywood films are targeted to white, middle class, heterosexual, Christian audiences - i.e. America. Those of us who are outside the mainstream see this very clearly. Films with black storylines must have an identifiable white character to have mass appeal, Schindler's list was a good example of broadening the appeal beyond Jews, and there are numerous "gay" movies that made it because the main roles were played by straight actors. America is not yet ready to hear the unfiltered, unadulturated stories of its minorities - those films end up as independent films that are seen in film festivals. I'm sure there will be white, middle class, heterosexual Christians who object to this assessment, but it is the reality of Hollywood and you probably don't see it because Hollywood reflects your reality, not ours.

  • Yoyo | August 14, 2011 1:28 AMReply

    While "The Help" portrayed, yet again, the plight of southern blacks, it was not nearly as realistic as some of the earlier works. Check with some, like me, who lived among the neighborhoods of the "domestics" during the 50's and 60's. Few had the neatly pressed clothes and smooth hair styles indicated in the movie. Timing was off a bit, including the years of the automobiles used, and the general living conditions shown. Where were the
    poor white folks? I was one and would appreciate the "whole" truth.

  • ALEX | August 13, 2011 11:14 AMReply

    Erik Kohn COMPLETELY misunderstands the powerful social forces behind the film "The Help." If he's going to posture that he understands anything at all about the racial situation of the sixties, he'd better, at the very least, conduct some research. First of all, to say that the film is "vanilla" in its tone is misguided. What's "vanilla" about risking one's family, one's livelihood, and one's LIFE to partake in Eugenia's book project. That's what it meant in those days; people were actually killed for such activities. As one who lived through those times, I saw people beaten, their lives destroyed - and not just in Mississippi - for much less. The Freedom Riders were BRUTALIZED everywhere they went. The times were dangerous. And to criticize the editor's throwaway line as a Hollywoodism, is another misinterpretation; that line was meant to represent how LITTLE shrift some people of that day were giving civil rights; how unimportant it seemed to them THEN. This film is a very accurate representation of the times it represents; and this is often very difficult to transmit the issues of one era to those of another, who haven't experienced those events. This is the dange of a period film discussing social issues. I am thankful that young people of today do not see color and have to live through what we experienced - it was challenging and painful for many of us.

  • Michele Nichols | August 13, 2011 5:19 AMReply

    I Will Follow, (2011) a film by Ava Du Vernay, starring Sally Richardson and Omari Hardwick, was a small indie Black film that died quietly, but was enjoyable in its modesty. See it, and support it, to encourage more like it.

  • Donald | August 12, 2011 2:01 AMReply

    @Tom Snyder: What a bizarro universe you live in where the fascist anti-communist Hitler is considered left-wing and people fighting for racial freedom and equality are "promoting race, sex and class warfare." Read a book. You might learn something.

  • TheTruth | August 11, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    I still don't see how this movie helps anyone? I have the slightest feeling that the writer of this article and individuals commenting are mostly white. This film should not be compared to Schindler's List. The current situation with blacks in America is fully different from that of the Jewish community when Schindler was released. Disney's decision to catapult an outdated, non-progressive depiction of black people is concerning. When there is so much power to choose what sort of ideas you want to project to the world of certain things, why this idea??? Why not show something else? Why continue to project a separation? The number of people who will see this film with open eyes is a minority. What sticks is a very outdated depiction of black people in a subservient position when the black community definitely still struggles to identify with mainstream, progressive, in-the-loop, majority-white America. Disney would almost appear to have an agenda. I would prefer and they would push an image of a fully integrated, equal, non-raced, person of African American heritage that goes beyond this continued racial segmentation happening here.

  • JayZ | August 11, 2011 5:05 AMReply

    I have as yet to see "The Help" and frankly, based on the reviews and comments I've heard so far, I don't see any reason to rush out and catch it. I'm feeling "Driving Miss Daisey" or some such other drivel is being foisted on us again.

    It is a shame that films with strong protagonists that are femaile, black, disabled or some other minority cannot yet find traction in spite of numerous standout films. We just passed an anniversary for "Boyz in the Hood" for example. Where are our stories about the Civil Rights Era that reflect some of the enormous sacrifice by people of different races, religions, youth and church-going folks?

    The fact that Hollywood still needs to peddle this kind of weak, tepid, treacle -- wasting the enormous talents of actresses like Viola Davis -- feeds into the revisionist history that folks like Michelle Bachman wish to foist on us.

    The sad truth is that as long as there is money to be made on films like this, it is unlikely that real stories will easily find their way to the neighborhood cinema. I urge everyone to re-read Donald Bogle's "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film", written about 30 years ago to see how little has changed.

  • Big Bomb | August 11, 2011 4:25 AMReply

    ha ha. "weak" not "week" analogy. Lest you make some snippy critic "grammar gotcha" comment ... oh god, I also have "pattern way" --- where's the edit button on these posts???

  • KT | August 11, 2011 4:23 AMReply

    "lInvictus, Gran Torino, The Blind Side, Mississippi Burning, Ghosts Of Mississippi, A Time To Kill just to name a few that come off the top of my head… All those films were about people of color in America dealing with racism with the lead as a white protagonist."

    Wait a minute. These films were not about people of color, they were about MEN of color and of course, the white protagonist was a MALE. Very male chauvinistic.

    I agree with the criticisms of The Help, but I still like the film and am very gratified that the WOMEN'S experiences of racism are front and center.

    We need more serious films with strong, feminist-leaning female protagonists and The Help is a strong step in that direction.

    I am angry that none of the commentators ever mentioned the gender angle in all these movies.

  • Big Bomb | August 11, 2011 4:23 AMReply

    Just like vagabond says: it's a week analogy, and it's not spot on, as he points out. the problem is with this happening OVER and OVER again with savior white protags. To reiterate my point, it hasn't happened in the same disturbing pattern way with Holocaust films. Therefore, while you can say "you're just pointing out a narrative strategy" -- you are doing so at the same time as leveling a judgement on this constant problem of mainstream white/black race films. And thus Schindler's List seems to be in your indictment. Let's not mess around -- do you think it's a valid choice in Schindler? Do you think it's a conscious choice of Speilberg to get people on his side? Do you find it as annoying as when they do it in white/black race films. Be honest.

  • Tom Snyder | August 11, 2011 2:17 AMReply

    Please leave the left-wing identity politics to Adolf Hitler and Commies like Rev. Wright, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama. Liberals and leftists keep promoting race, sex and class warfare. Meanwhile, it's poor minorities who suffer from their neo-fascist socialist anti-capitalist evil rhetoric. I'm sick of it!

  • vagabond | August 10, 2011 10:57 AMReply

    Funny how the only films in which there were no "sympathetic" white people in them for the white audience to "identify" with can only be found in Blaxploitation films. It's the only place where you can consistently find films where Black people are doing for self without a white protagonist to hold the hand of the white audience. And yet white people love Blaxploitation films as much as Black people.

    How come that lesson of not needing a white protagonist to hold white audiences hands wasn't taken away from the Blaxploitation era? In these so-called post-racial times why are we still getting films like The Blind Side and Avatar? The very fact that Hollywood feels that films about oppressors and the oppressed need to have some redeeming protagonist character from the side of the oppressors to guide the oppressed to freedom is a continuation of oppression by means of subversion. In other words... 'If it weren't for a few of us white folks you would never have been free'.

    On another front while i understand your analogy with Schindler's List i think that it's weak in the face of so many other choices that could have been used. Invictus, Gran Torino, The Blind Side, Mississippi Burning, Ghosts Of Mississippi, A Time To Kill just to name a few that come off the top of my head... All those films were about people of color in America dealing with racism with the lead as a white protagonist. The real reason that white protagonists are need in these films is to white wash the crimes of history. With a white protagonist in the film white people in the audience gets to walk away saying 'I'm not like those other bad white characters in that film, I'm much more like the white protagonist who helps.' and the problem with that is that white people who have a lot of soul searching to do in terms of race never have to do any spiritual heavy lifting.

    Why is that a film like this is allowed to be made by people who have no idea racism is, is beyond my comprehension. If i, as a Black Puerto Rican, wanted to make a film about the Russian Revolution people would look at me sideways. And yet i probably have a better insight into that revolution than most white Hollywood directors.

    i think that the real problem with letting Black folks tell their own stories from their own point of view is that white people aren't ready for that head trip. White people aren't ready to give up the benefits of being white. If things were a post-racial as white people claimed it is in Obama's America then maybe Hollywood wouldn't feel the need to keep shoving these white protagonist's in these films about racism, down our throats.

  • Carrie Wetherall | August 10, 2011 7:20 AMReply

    When you get lemons, make lemonade -- Check out this video by a new generation of domestic workers that are winning a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York, and now they're about to win in California. This is the story that is really exciting. And they used The Help as a way to get the news out to bigger audiences. Smart!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RyEGeZmAn8&feature=player_embedded or
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RyEGeZmAn8

    Here's some background:

    Today, the National Domestic Workers Alliance is releasing “Meet Today’s Help,” a 2-minute video that tells the stories of domestic workers today and lets people know what they can do to help today's “help.”

    50 years after the stories told in the film, a workforce of over 2.5 million domestic workers go to work every day to take care of the most precious elements of their employers' lives - their homes and families. And yet, domestic workers remain an unprotected workforce, without access to basic rights that other workers take for granted. Still mostly women of color, far too few domestic workers receive overtime pay, meal and rest breaks, sick leave or vacation. And far too many of them work for less than minimum wage. In this regard, too little has changed.

    There are three ways you can help "the help" today:

    Watch the video, and share it on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube;

    Tell your friends; and
    Post the video on your own blog or website.

  • Pam Horovitz | August 10, 2011 7:04 AMReply

    Jeff, I think any effort to expand our awareness and sensitivity to a minority and their difficulties has to start somewhere., and generally those steps are small. Were Bert and Ernie a precursor to Ellen coming out as gay on TV? Probably. So I don't take the inclusion of a disabled actor on Glee as the equivalent of a blackface minstrel show. If anything I'm impressed that Glee has created a story line that includes a disabled performer in dance routines. Would we all like to see more disabled talent onscreen? Of course, and I think that Glee is one more step on that road, just as The Soloist was a step on the road to more sensitivity regarding talented people with mental illness.

  • Jeff Shannon | August 10, 2011 6:47 AMReply

    Have you ever noticed that whenever anyone discusses minorities in Hollywood/mainstream media, that people with disabilities are either at the bottom of the list or not mentioned at all, as in the case of this blog entry? Does it striike anyone as odd that this entire, vibrant minority is never or rarely ever included in the discussion? Maybe it's not relevant to "The Help," but still, it's worth noting that the kid on "Glee" is essentially performing the disability equivalent of a blackface minstrel show and nobody seems to object that a genuine, authentically disabled actor was robbed of a lucrative career opportunity by casting directors who only *claim* to have made an effort to cast authentically. Maybe I'm off-topic with regard to a movie as predictably myopic as "The Help," but it's worth it to just put this opinion out there and hope that some people will think about this a little more deeply.

  • Eric Kohn | August 10, 2011 6:10 AMReply

    @Big Bomb Overall, I'm an admirer of "Schindler's List" and certainly wouldn't consider it insulting to anyone (except, you know, the Nazis). I used it only as a means of explaining a certain kind of narrative strategy that I think is operative in "The Help" as well (although in a much less admirable fashion).

  • Big Bomb | August 10, 2011 5:20 AMReply

    Eric -- c'mon. Before Schindler's List, there were maybe a few movies and documentaries about the Holocaust. Just a couple. Maybe the choice of seeing it through Schindler's eyes was a new way to tell a tell that has certainly been covered from just about every possible angle. I hardly think Speilberg was so cynical as to hook up the Goy-vision just for more ticket sales ... I'm not even a huge Speilberg fan, I felt I had seen enough Holocaust movies to last a lifetime -- and yet, Schindler's List was captivating on every level. Maybe that's the reason it resonated. Certainly Steven Speilberg's cache also helped. Insulted that the point-of-view was different for a change? Please.